curated by Ken Pratt
“Against Nature” is a group show that examines the works of an unconnected handful of contemporary artists in relation to the legacy of the Decadents. It casts its gaze over works that draw their inspiration from or evoke literary sources –or sensibilities- such as Huysmans, Comte de Lautreamont or Baudelaire. Or, they allude to the work of visual artists such as Gustave Moreau, Félicien Rops, Aubrey Beardsley and Ernest Dowson.
In a sense, this period in French culture –and mirrored in the work of contemporaneous thinkers in other European cultures- represents an enigma. It is, at once, distinctive. It gives us a strong sense of its characteristic existence. This, almost like one of Moreau’s murky, misty works, is more of a vision or illusion than a reality. The Decadents, essentially remain fragmented and impossible to pin down. They are the old generation – with remnants of the Gothic, Orientalism and Romanticism- colliding with unborn Modernism. A sliding into Symbolism and a whiff of Art Nouveau not quite formed, of Expressionism not yet screaming, Virginia Wolf not yet repeating herself. Repeating herself.
Remaining now a constant on the developmental landscape, the Decadents pop up for generation after generation as an influence, a formative experience. And yet, like rogue elephants or man-eating tigers, they often act alone. A single book by Huysmans known to so many who cite it as key to their personal development. Yet, they know no other writing by the man or his peers. Moreau’s ‘Salome’ dances in the common dream. Yet of his life or exact place in the march of art history, even the self-claimed fans could not say, confused by a lack of orthodoxy in his image.
One reason for this defiance of a cohesive position or direction might be the players themselves. Eccentric, individual and perhaps, on the whole, too affluent to have to form alliances based on true pragmatism or economics. Theirs was a world in which deathly melancholic emotions coexisted with the erotic and profane, the key players, in a number of cases, far too outwardly adherent to the values of the dying caste system that afforded them their privilege to act upon the impetus. At times the concurrence of the erotic and Thanatic is extreme. La Petite Mort. Literally. Literary.
This is not the high-octane hysterics of the horror orgasm in the Gothic. It might look like it at times, but this is a place in which inertia and melancholia replace death and arousal and intoxication pass for penetration. It might look like Art Nouveau at times. But this is not the natural world as a reaction to industry and war. It is a place in which the mimetic forms of animals and plants replace human beings, signifying that they are more worthy of the author’s gaze than the social world. This is not the oriental fantasy of the nineteenth century with its desire to possess the colonised world. It is instead the denial of one’s duty as the dominant coloniser’s heirs, to turn native and adopt the ways and heady spices of the other. This is not homosexual camp, though it has its visual tendrils reaching unto it. It is effete. But in a way that casts its rolling lusting eyes upon the female form as readily as boys.
“Against Nature” poses no unifying hypothesis nor postulates any reason for this fascination, intentional or otherwise. It offers no explanation for the references to the visual languages of the Decadents amongst contemporary artists. It merely traces the forms and maps out the residues. Maybe it’s just a spike in the graph, the disproportionately great resonance of a relatively small but fascinating legacy. But maybe it’s indicative of something else. Like the mise en scène of the Decadents themselves, signalling nothing precise that lurks in immensely detailed interiors still too far out of focus or too recessed within the shadow to have a name or form. It remains a tingle between the hips or a taste on the tongue, not an experience or an emotion, but a sensation yet to be identified. If one felt like rising to the effort.
Individual Artist Information:
HANNE BARR is a Scottish illustrator whose work draws to mind –intentionally or otherwise- the works of Beardsley and Dowson. Her ‘Animus’ series of paintings in black ink on paper develops a mythology for a non-existent religion, a mysterious cult with its own rituals that we can only imagine from the fragments of evidence her drawings offer us. Notions of the exotic and the other swirl around in our heads as we try to piece together it arcane beliefs. Its high priestesses and meaningful symbols remain locked in silence behind the presence of almost anthropological codification.
BORIS VAN BERKUM is a Rotterdam-based artist who –in the guise of the performative construct DJ Chantelle- has already produced a body of work alluding directly to Huysmans & Beardsley from which a number of large-scale ceramic works were acquired by the Groninger Museum. Continuing to explore decadent desires for fame and fortune, the Fama et Fortuna series offers a series of meticulously crafted bronzes in which the opulent dreams of a carnivorous mind devour yet more jewels and gold. The animal kingdom itself must fall as subservient cupbearers to the decadent demands of an all-consuming appetite for excess.
(Courtesy Witzenhausen Gallery)
EMMA VAN DRONGELEN’s painstaking large-scale drawings show people or animals rendered in a highly aesthetic manner, the lines and intricate detail removing the works far from the realms of the real or naturalistic. The beasts of the field become strange and beautiful creatures and yet the human figures speak of the absinthe-driven anguish of too many nights in search of a meaningful sensual experience, giant bubbles floating in the image like some distorted hallucinatory visual disturbance. This is the unnatural world of Redon or Rops experienced from a softer position; the work of a young woman artist utilising techniques that arrive with us via the hands of older corrupted men.
LUDOVICA GIOSCIA & KAREN TANG both have their respective artistic practices and occasionally cooperate on jointly authored projects. Their riotous bejewelled remote-controlled tortoise is a direct reference to Huysmans. It’s garish colours and angular forms construct a dialogue between the respective artist’s particular individual and shared preoccupations; Gioscia’s with bright trashy colour and decorative pattern and Tang’s interest in the intersection between pattern, colour and sculptural form. This is a work that locates the self-indulgent opulence of the Decadents within a contemporary consumer society’s grasp.
GERALDINE GLIUBISLAVICH is a young French painter who looks continuously at painting by other artists to come to her own contemplations of colour and form on canvas, some painted from memories of other paintings, others drawn form her direct experience. Whilst Gliubslavich herself often states that she only ever looks at the works of contemporary painters in her research – Tuymans, Dumas, Doig et al- the works often show the hands of older masters; Moreau, Ensor and even the early decadent pre-Expressionist works of Munch. In Gliubislavich’s cut-up relationships between individual paintings, the abstract, images of pop bands and older scenes of ritual and procession may all jostle within a single diptych or triptych. Do we sense from these newer works that, even if her direct sources are more recent, she, like a medium, senses the swirling sensuality of the Decadent signature beneath?
JAMES RICHARDS’ work is concerned with histories of identity and mythologies. In the work of the London-based artist –who works in various media ranging from video to objects and installation- the area of attention is often the mythologies and histories arising from gay culture. Less of a matter of ‘revising’ or ‘reclaiming’ hidden gay histories, Richards’ work seems to be more interested in materialising and embellishing on mythologies drawn as much from apocryphal urban legend as an actual history. Sometimes there are juxtapositions –through the choice of production process or materials- that openly speak of ambivalence or disinterest in constructing a narrative that is likely to be endorsed by broader society. His works that draw on funerary items and urban legends of beautiful deaths evoke tragic grand divas from Bernhardt to the camp eroticised figures inhabiting the work of von Stuck or von Bayros.
Richards’ latest work ‘Prototype for Untitled Merchandise (Trade Urn)’ revisits his preoccupation with gay cultural iconography and consumption. The work grows out of the urban myths surrounding, Trade, the legendary gay dance club of the 1990’s. On such myth concerns the scattering of the ashes of a deceased man on the dance floor of the club in fulfilment of his last will and testament. Richards offers as the prototype for a commercial funerary urn that might just hit the spot for such occasions. Richard’s work objectifies gay culture’s strange intersections of commercial values and camp decadent legend as a luxury consumer product ready for purchase.
The Antwerp based artist KATE NAYNE works primarily in painting. Her work is impressionistic. She works from photographs she takes during her daily life or travels which she uses to construct a personal sense of time and place in a way that emphasises the personal connections and responses to the sights and experiences that have prompted the paintings. And, like the Impressionists, she has a strong fascination with the way that light affects the modalities of an experience of an object or place. Working in a way that we readily understand the influences of contemporary approaches to painting arising in Antwerp – her home for the last nine years- she juxtaposes images of interiors, exteriors and the figurative, often working on what might be described as domestic scale canvases. A building in Casablanca, an interior view of an apartment, someone else’s pet and an intimate reworking of a lover’s body influenced by how Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du monde’ was presented within a blockbuster exhibition and the works of Moreau, experienced during two respective museum visits in Paris. The grouping of her works build up a document of personal subjective meanings and, in turn, allow the viewer to develop his or her own narratives. The subtle references to art historical prompts and sources of inspiration to her as a painter make the possibilities of interior narratives expand beyond the merely novelistic: we can elaborate the clues into a library of sub-vocalised narratives.
LEVI VAN VELUW is a young Dutch artist working with photography. After graduating in 2007, his idiosyncratic constructed portraits won him the IPA International Photo Award. It’s easy to see why. His carefully thought out interventions are carried out directly to his own body, often working in low-tech materials such as ball-point pen. Once he has constructed this elaborate make-up –which is more accurately a form of drawing directly onto his own skin using a mirror- he photographs self-portraits. In Van Veluw’s swirling lines of drawn-on hair of trails of ivy-like plants that invade his face, we see the gestural fantasies of the Aesthetic movement. This is, let’s face it, hugely narcissistic work in which the artist like Narcissus simply cannot be torn away from his own image; like Dorian Gray before it all went wrong. Van Veluw’s work speaks of the drives to be ever more beautiful beyond the confines of mere make-up or fashionable clothing. This is work that draws directly on the Aesthetes’ pining to be more than human and live a sensual and heightened existence as the stuff of which myths are made.
(Courtesy Ron Mandos Gallery)
Ken Pratt © 2007